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Non-cyclists over 50 sought for study into benefits for mental health

Can eight weeks of regular cycling improve your mental health?

Researchers are calling for volunteers to help with a study into cycling’s effect on mental health.

The University of Reading is looking into the benefits for older people who cycle regularly, and to that end is looking for volunteers over the age of 50 who would not describe themselves as regular cyclists.

The participants will be asked to cycle for half an hour, three days a week, for a total of eight weeks. They will be interviewed at the start of the study and take part in computerised cognitive tasks which assess memory, attention and speed of thinking.

The same tests will be retaken at the end of the eight week period.

In the Netherlands, cycling accounts for 23% of all journeys for people aged 65 and older; 15% in Denmark and 9% in Germany, but in the UK it represents only 1% all journeys.

Dr Carien Van Reekum, from the University of Reading's Department of Psychology, told Medical Xpress: "Our current research focuses on cognitive and emotional changes when people get older, and how these changes impact on well-being.

“A number of recent studies have shown that regular physical exercise is one of the key factors in maintaining, or even improving, thinking and reasoning in older age.

"The team is focusing on whether incorporating cycling into everyday chores, such as getting from home to work or the shops, may positively contribute to having good mental health in older age.

“Feedback from our first wave of volunteers suggests all participants benefited from being involved in the trial, with most continuing to cycle even after completing the project with us. This an excellent opportunity for local people to rediscover the joys and benefits of cycling while contributing to the next phase of this important study."

Volunteers will receive free cycle training and a free bike check. Participants will also have the opportunity to try a Raleigh electrically assisted bike.

Back in 2010 we reported how a study found that as little as five minutes’ exercise in a green environment can provide a significant boost to mental health.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, was led by Professor Jules Pretty of the University of Essex and found that undertaking activities such as cycling or walking in a natural setting led to rapid improvement in mood and self-esteem.

Researchers surveyed 1,250 people of all ages in ten studies, with subjects taking part in outdoor activities including cycling, walking, horse-riding, fishing, boating and farming.

They discovered that the greatest boost was seen among young people as well as those who are mentally ill, with the biggest difference observed within just five minutes. While those exercising for longer in a green environment also benefited, the gains were smaller in scale, according to the study. The impact was also higher among those taking part in exercise in an area with water, such as a river or lake.

Professor Pretty, who has written extensively on the importance of people’s relationship with nature, was quoted by BBC News as saying that people who led stressful or inactive lifestyles or suffered from mental illness were best-placed to benefit from “green exercise.”

"Employers, for example, could encourage staff in stressful workplaces to take a short walk at lunchtime in the nearest park to improve mental health," he said, adding that outdoor exercise could also benefit young offenders, for example.

However, he cautioned that "a challenge for policy makers is that policy recommendations on physical activity are easily stated but rarely adopted widely."

Meanwhile, Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, said that the study provided further proof that even a little exercise in a green environment could be used as a cost-effective way of improving mental wellbeing without resorting to drugs.

"It's important that people experiencing depression can be given the option of a range of treatments, and we would like to see all doctors considering exercise as a treatment where appropriate," he added.

After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.

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